Chemistry picture of the week: Ugrad-postgrad relations

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Lest I offend through the assumption that I’m referring to undergraduates as pigs (albeit really cute ones), I should begin by explaining the relation of this week’s picture to the title of this post. As a part of orientation week at the University of Melbourne, there were several activities around campus. I personally avoid the O-week activities with the attitude that they’re not really meant for me, but walking past this petting zoo, I just couldn’t resist. It was late in the day so the crowds had dissipated, and the tiny, pudgy piggies were too much for my poor softie heart.

O-week marks the beginning of the first teaching semester. For postgraduates, this is the time we re-adjust to the reality of sharing our campus with thousands of undergraduates. Virtually from November to March, we’ve only shared the campus with academics, administrators and summer semester undergraduates, who are but a small fraction of the whole student body. It’s been blissfully quiet. The commute to campus from the city centre has been swift and comfortable, the walkways have been empty and the lines to food outlets have been short. In the chemistry building specifically, the instruments in the teaching labs have been available at any hour of the day. Starting Monday, all of that will change.

I grudgingly admit to myself that I resent the undergraduates. Firstly, it’s difficult not to feel a little possessive of our habitat, the campus. We’re here every day for most of the year, while most undergrads only share our campus for 24 weeks per year. Surely, that means we have more right to it than they do? Realistically, that’s not true at all — those undergraduates have gained entrance by their own merit, and more than that, are accumulating significant debt just to come here every year. They pay for the operation of the university, and we benefit from the facilities that money buys. If anything, they have more right to this place than we do.

Secondly, a part of my resentment arises from the sheer volume of undergraduate students passing through these buildings yearly. Navigating crowds is unpleasant at best; at its worst, it triggers my anxiety, which can make me a flustered, unproductive mess for the rest of the day. When the vast majority of that crowd is made up of undergraduates, it’s hard not to blame them for that.

The volume of students also makes this resentment easier to cultivate. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that all of those faces in the crowd belong to individuals. Instead, they blur together, lumped into that broad category of “undergrads”. As we know from any sort of discrimination, it is much easier to project your negative feelings onto a group of people if you don’t associate with them personally. Even if unintentional, it’s really about dehumanisation — about talking about a group of people as an abstract label.

I would argue that this detachment between the students and faculty is to some extent cultivated by the modern university system. I feel like instead of being a part of the institution, the undergraduates simply pass through the turning cogs of a degree factory. When tertiary degrees are becoming increasingly common, the volume of students is becoming unmanageable. There is no way we can form personal connections with even just the thousands of first year chemistry students passing through our lecture halls each year. We do make a cursory attempt at it by having those smaller lab classes and tutorials with face-to-face time with postgraduate students as demonstrators or tutors. The postgraduate is still a teacher, though, and holds the undergraduate’s grades in their hands, which makes the relationship loaded. For the undergraduates, it may even cultivate resentment, if they feel that the teacher is not being fair or doing their job adequately.

There are two ways this gap between undergraduates and faculty could be bridged, I think. The first is by a social connection. A chemistry society — or, at the very least, a series of events through the postgraduate society — that involves all of faculty, postgraduates and undergraduates would form a community where communication between each group is encouraged.

The second is more personal, and it’s through humility. Remembering that the reason I’m a postgraduate student is because I’m passionate about chemistry and that I want to share that passion with others. The chemistry undergraduates are a perfect audience for that, really, since they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have at least the tiniest interest in science. If I don’t take advantage of a captive audience, well, that makes me a bad science communicator, doesn’t it?

You can leave your opinions in the comments below, contact me at chemistryintersection@gmail.com or find me on Twitter as @Lady_Beaker.

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Demonstrator’s vow

For those not in the know, or for those whose universities operate differently to those in Australia, chemistry postgraduate students here from Honours to PhD get the chance to teach undergraduates in a small capacity. During a chemistry major, alongside lectures and tutorials, undergraduates undergo a certain amount of lab work in small groups (15-20 students) supervised by a postgraduate student. This postgraduate student is called the “demonstrator,” because their role is primarily to demonstrate proper laboratory technique and etiquette. For the postgraduate student, this usually gives a small income stream to supplement our scholarships and also gives us teaching experience, crucial for those seeking to further themselves in academia.

At this point, I have demonstrated for two classes, one in each semester of my Honours year last year. It is the beginning of second semester here at the University of Melbourne now, and I have been assigned my first first year class at this university. As I prepare, I reflect back on my successes and failures last year. To my shame, I have to admit that there are more of the latter than there are of the former. Especially as my Honours year drew to a close, I let my stress and exhaustion bleed into the teaching labs and I’m afraid I wasn’t as good of a teacher as I could have been. To right this, and to honour all the amazing chemistry teachers I have had in school and in university, I wanted to devise a sort of code of honour — a vow — to guide myself and other potential demonstrators in the coming semester.

As a demonstrator, I vow that:

  • I will convey my love and enthusiasm for chemistry in every move I make in the teaching laboratories. I will endeavour to make the students’ experience a positive one so they may be encouraged to return in later years.
  • I will prepare well for the lesson beforehand and know all the material front, back and sideways. Confidence in the material should instil the students’ confidence in me.
  • I will try to provide a broader context for all practicals, especially the boring, repetitive ones. I will emphasise that chemistry is still primarily an experimental science and learning practical skills is learning chemistry.
  • I will be an unyielding enforcer of safety rules in the laboratory.
  • I will dig deep for a fountain of patience, remembering how nervous I was in my first year practicals. I will not be visibly annoyed at repetitive questions or silly mistakes. Although it goes against everything I stand for on this Earth, I will make a mighty effort to resist the constant urge to snark.
  • I will guide my students to the correct answers — without spoon-feeding them — by encouraging them to think like chemists.
  • I will mark reports fairly but stick to my guns if students question my marking. I will try to provide positive feedback and help my students grow. I will not shame them for their mistakes, even in writing.
  • I will be patient with my unpaid free time, which will inevitably be consumed in the duties of demonstrating, like class preparation, report marking and slow students finishing in the lab. Demonstrating takes up so little of the year — there will be other weeks for other things.

If any veteran demonstrators have wisdom to add to this list, I would be more than happy to hear about it. Perhaps even more importantly, if you are a current undergraduate and either love or hate something your demonstrator does, let me — us — know; we’re still learning, too.

You can contact me at chemistryintersection@gmail.com, in the comments or find me on Twitter as @Lady_Beaker, tweeting about my chemistry life.